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HomeGeopolitical CompassThe LevantWhy Democracy Stalled in the Middle East

Why Democracy Stalled in the Middle East

Authors: Amaney A. Jamal & Michael Robbins

Affiliation: The Princeton School of Public and International Affairs and the Arab Barometer 

Organization/Publisher: Foreign Affairs

Date/Place: March/April 2022/New York, USA

Type of Literature: Analysis

Word Count: 3392



Keywords: Democracy, Middle East, Arab Spring, Russia, China, the United States



Drawing upon popular surveys conducted by the Arab Barometer in a number of Arab countries, the authors venture to answer a perplexing question: Why Democracy Stalled in the Arab World? They propose that the answer lies in the fact that those democratic movements have failed to address the “bread question”, or in other words, materialize economic improvement. The article highlights the quick rise and fall of pro-democratic movements that was paired with similar fluctuations in the popular faith in democracy as a solution. Then, the authors stress that the Arab Spring started not only as a call for liberty but for better economic conditions – “Bread, freedom, and justice” was the protest slogan often heard in Cairo during the Egyptian uprising.” The authors bring attention to the pre-pandemic protests of 2019, where protestors would call for generally better governance and economic conditions, as the lesson learned was that regime change does not necessarily equal better living conditions. The surveys show how a significant portion of the Arab World have been attracted to the Russian/Chinese model over the US one, as it promises stability and economic improvement away from the turbulences of democracy. Here, the authors pinpoint an interesting paradox: democracy-favoring countries are favoring China and Russia, while authoritarian-leaning countries are looking to strengthen links with Washington. The body of the article demonstrates those perceptions through surveys done in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Tunisia, Egypt, and Morocco. Those surveys show that authoritarian-leaning countries have better economic outlooks than democracy-leaning ones, in support of the authors’ main argument. Moreover, the authors refute the idea that Arabic political culture is inhospitable to democracy, by stressing that “this view is faulty not only because it exonerates outside actors that bolster authoritarian rulers in the Middle East to advance their own interests but also because it elides the role of economic stagnation in turning many ordinary Arabs against the idea of democratic change.”  Finally, “Any effort to promote democracy must take into account citizens’ aspirations for economic dignity.” The authors stress that “Appeals to abstract notions alone will not be persuasive. Arabs crave freedom and justice—but if democracy does not also deliver bread, Arabs will back political systems that do.” For the often-frustrated Arab World will look for “whatever works”.

Critical Commentary: Chiefly, the article suggests that pro-democratic movements have failed to address the economic aspirations of the protestors, which is a view supported by historical data. The article alludes that the circumstances created by those dynamics will push the Arab World towards Russia and China, however such predictions are unjustified by a single premise based solely on surveys, and requires a more nuanced analysis. For one, it ignores a lot of contributing factors such as fraud by ruling parties, and the US’s normative power and interventionism.


By: Hamza Emir, CIGA Research Assistant



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